Nickelsville, a self-managed encampment community, and the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) are squaring off over the future of three tiny house villages that the organizations ran together over a three-year partnership.
LIHI cut ties with Nickelsville after the two organizations failed to agree to a memorandum of understanding that governed how the villages at Othello, Northlake and Georgetown would be run. On March 20, LIHI gave Nickelsville staff a week to wind down operations at the three villages. Residents at those locations are not in danger of losing their homes, said Sharon Lee, executive director of LIHI.
Nickelsville responded with a cease-and-desist letter in which an attorney for the organization asked LIHI to stop saying that the nonprofit would be taking over day-to-day management at the villages.
“Your allegations that Nickelsville has failed to provide services and must be replaced are defamatory to the organization and, furthermore, have introduced anxiety and fear to the residents of those villages at a very vulnerable time in their lives,” wrote attorney Ted Hunter.
Lee argued the letter is a maneuver with no factual basis behind it. “I was disappointed in the letter,” Lee said. “We gave Nickelsville an opportunity to continue to be our partner if they would agree to the MOU.”
The two organizations had been negotiating a new MOU to govern operations at the three tiny house villages. The MOU was required by the city of Seattle, which helps fund the villages.
LIHI provides case management at each site, provides equipment and holds liability for the villages. Nickelsville was a subcontractor, providing day-to-day management services.
Nickelsville rejected a LIHI proposal on March 13 and countered with their own MOU softening requirements around case management and LIHI’s authority over disciplinary processes on March 15.
Less than a week later, LIHI pulled out of the partnership. The points of contention were “irreconcilable,” according to a letter from LIHI obtained by Real Change.
“It is unfortunate that two organizations with so much shared history and so many aligned goals have been unable to reach a solution to these important management issues,” Lee wrote in the letter.
The break means that LIHI will no longer pay Nickelsville staff for their work at the villages, removing a source of funds from the grassroots organization that grew out of self-managed encampments a decade ago.
Andrew Constantino has been with Nickelsville since the organization took over a hill on Dearborn Avenue near the Interstate 5 freeway overpass in 2016. He resigned from the organization on Nov. 20. In a letter to Lee and Scott Morrow, a Nickelsville founder, Constantino called the MOU an “insult” and “a mistake.”
“Poor people need more than affordable housing, they need the dignity of forming their own communities, creating their own organizations and a seat at the table to determine their own futures,” Constantino wrote.
Like others in the Nickelsville organization, Constantino saw the MOU as marking the end of Nickelsville’s tradition of self-management because it required residents to see case managers and gave LIHI considerable control over who enters and who is removed from the villages.
Lee believes these provisions are necessary because case management helps move people into housing. Nickelsville has a reputation for kicking vulnerable people out of encampments through a disciplinary process called a “bar.”
Constantino sees the MOU as LIHI bending to the will of the city, which requires case management and other data collection to show entries to and exits from city-funded programs. He said the data can be used to paint a misleading picture.
“When a case manager buys you a bus ticket out of town, they create data that they resolved your homelessness, even though you ended up back in Seattle on the street four months later,” Constantino said. “When you get a six-month rapid rehousing voucher, they resolved your homelessness and created a positive outcome, even though you got evicted later.”
This method of accounting obscures how many people the regional homeless services system move into housing. The city does not track if a household gets housing and later becomes homeless again.
LIHI has been criticized for evicting low-income tenants in the past. A report by the Seattle Women’s Commission in partnership with the King County Bar Association found that LIHI evicted 46 households in 2017, among the highest eviction rates among landlords that brought more than one case.
Evictions hurt renters by making it harder to find another apartment and by compounding rent with court costs.
Beyond the actions and policies of individual organizations is the fact that the roots of homelessness are structural. No state in the country has a sufficient number of housing units available for the lowest-income renters. A renter needs a job that pays better than Seattle’s $15-hour minimum wage to afford an average apartment. Behavioral health care is oversubscribed, making it hard to help people who need treatment. The cost of living continues to climb.
“Of course case managers can such help folks, but our social fabric is beyond unravelling,” Constantino said. “There are no easy fixes.”
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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